Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Lego Movie: On Specialness, Creativity, and Boundless Cross-Branding

This is not a movie review. I wish I could write those, but I'm not really equipped with the necessary cinematic vocabulary, and besides that, I'd probably either spoil movies by telling all the good parts (for the flicks I like) or struggle to find anything interesting to say about them (for the ones I don't).

This is just some observations that came to mind last night as I took in The Lego Movie with my boy, Caleb. We both love Legos. I've enjoyed them all my life. He has thousands in his collection, and playing with them is among our favorite things to do together. This movie was one of the best we've ever seen together. I highly recommend it, for all ages, for boys and girls, and especially for anyone who loves Legos.

Now, without further ado, I give you my thoughts...

The Lego Movie is intelligent and entertaining on several levels. It is very funny. It makes heavy use of visual and thematic gags inherent in the idea of live plastic toys, in the tradition of the Toy Story trilogy. It gives an interesting new texture to the standard framework of a regular Joe standing up against a powerful, evil force, winning a girl's heart and inspiring his friends along the way, and ultimately saving the world. What it does best, however, is use Legos to illustrate the ideal of original thought, unrestrained creativity, or (at the risk of applying a phrase that's becoming ironically clichéd) "thinking outside the box."

The beautiful thing about Legos and part of what makes them such intelligent toys is their limitless re-usability and recombinant potential. Erector sets, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs can be assembled in original ways, encouraging imaginative play, but even these are limited in the variety of configurations they'll allow. Only Legos permit and encourage a virtually infinite scope of new combinations.

In his typically excellent essay "To the Legoland Station," Michael Chabon explains a concept that many have delighted in, the Lego company wisely encourages, and The Lego Movie pushes rather overtly: the "saving power of the lawless imagination." Having enjoyed square and rectangular bricks in six basic colors--the only kind of Legos made at the time--during his own childhood, Chabon now watches his children combine intricate, more specialized, and much more detailed pieces in ways that fly in the face of convention and of the relatively simplistic play of his youth.

Here's an example he gives relative to spacecraft and minifigs (the human-ish characters of the Lego world):

"My children have used aerodynamic, streamlined bits and pieces of a dozen Star Wars kits, mixed with Lego dinosaur jaws, Lego aqualungs, Lego doubloons, Lego tibias, to devise improbably beautiful spacecraft far more commensurate than George Lucas's with the mysteries of other galaxies and alien civilizations. They have equipped the manga-inspired Lego figures with Lego ichthyosaur flippers. When he was still a toddler, Abraham liked to put a glow-in-the-dark bedsheet-style Lego ghost costume over a Lego Green Goblin minifig and seat him on a Sioux horse, armed with a light saber, then make the Goblin do battle with a minifig Darth Vader, mounted on a black horse, armed with a bow and arrow."

I've often joined Caleb in a similar hybridization of vehicles and characters, combining elements from diverse platforms. Lego offers play sets based on dozens of movies, comic books, characters and mythologies both pre-existing and of the company's own invention, real human endeavors, and historical periods, and Caleb owns a fairly eclectic variety of these. I create with him not to deliberately flex my artistic muscles or appear clever from the perspective of a brilliant essayist's toddler son. Like Caleb, I do it simply because it is fun, and Legos lend themselves to it so easily.

The Lego Movie opens with a day in the life of Emmet, one of countless citizens of a Lego city, whose lives are marked by repetition and blind obedience. They share an almost worshipful respect for corporate mentality, industrial efficiency, modern urban lifestyle, and especially for The Instructions, written documents that tell them exactly what to do minute-by-minute. Although Emmet seems happy and joins his fellow citizens in a rendition of "Everything is Awesome," we detect a dystopian undercurrent.

Emmet becomes unwittingly entangled in a struggle between Octan, the mega-corporation in control of his city, and an intrepid group who oppose it by searching for a small plastic object cleverly named the Piece of Resistance. This item is predicted by ancient prophecy to fall into the hands of the Special and has power to stop the Kragle, a terrible weapon possessed by Octan's evil leader, President Business.

Not unpredictably, Emmet winds up holding the Piece of Resistance, is dubbed the Special, and therefore must find a way to penetrate Octan's fortress. Despite the expectation others have for him to be the most extraordinary person in the universe, Emmet's mind is almost totally devoid of innovation. Here is a pretty well done iteration of a common literary theme: the likable Everyman who feels unfit for the world-saving burden thrust upon him, à la Moses, Frodo Baggins, and others.

There follows an epic adventure through some of the various worlds that Emmet learns comprise the Lego universe: his own city, the American Old West, Cloud Cuckoo Land, and even the high seas aboard a submarine and a pirate ship. (Because what epic adventure would be complete without this?)

We soon learn the exact nature of the Kragle, and this is key to the movie's central message. It does not kill people or destroy property in the usual manner, but glues Lego pieces together so they cannot ever be re-purposed. It ends creativity and true progress as it sentences all within its reach to an everlasting static condition, powerless to change.

Also important to my discussion is the hugeness of the movie's cast of characters. Besides the several new players introduced in it, there are dozens of comic book superheroes, historical figures, Star Wars humans, aliens, and droids, and stock characters. Some of these come from Lego's proprietary collection (such as the 1980s Astronaut), but most are practically universal in human storytelling (e.g., ghosts, mummies, pirates, etc.). There are no fewer than three wizards: Tolkien's Gandalf, Rowling's Dumbledore, and Vitruvius, who debuts here. Even vehicles from other stories take on minor roles: the Batmobile, Wonder Woman's invisible jet, and Han Solo's Millennium Falcon are characters of a sort.

Numerous though the characters are, their real effectiveness results not from their number, but from the breadth of their origins. I can't think of another movie that co-opts so many pre-existing characters, from so many other stories. This feature, which is part of what makes the movie so fun, is the same thing that has helped catapult Lego to tremendous popularity and success in recent years. The company has made immense cross-branding efforts. Their toys, characters, and themes include and are included in many non-Lego platforms, genres, media, and products.

A few years ago, I wrote in a blog post, "While at the game store, I took a few minutes to browse the used discs and spotted a cheap copy of Lego Star Wars. We picked it up for our boy, Caleb, and it's a huge hit! This is a video game based on a toy that's based on a movie... I want a T-shirt with this game on it!" It turns out that they make these T-shirts, and Caleb now owns a few of them.

Though we've watched several lesser Lego movies, produced for DVD and also released on Netflix, none of these matched the grandeur of The Lego Movie. It is Lego's first really ambitious, feature-length, big-budget film production. Having enjoyed Lego toys, books, video games, T-shirts, and DVDs, we were excited to see what a big movie studio could do with our favorite toys. We had high hopes for the movie's quality, and we were not disappointed. 

Unlike the hybrids assembled by Chabon's children, characters in the movie are generally put together "correctly," i.e., people have matching legs, torso, arms, head, and hair, and vehicles tend to have a similar consistency. The movie itself, however, is a hodge-podge, a mix-and-matched assortment of remarkable diversity. In other words, the cast of characters and vehicles mirrors the diversity of the Lego company's offerings. There are some exceptions to the general consistency: the pirate Metalbeard consists of a typical minifig head atop an enormous body made from spare parts of many different types. Another exception comes at the climax of the struggle against President Business, when members of the resistance convince everyone to reject The Instructions and assemble pieces in new and unconventional ways.

This revolt is the movie's most obvious expression of the message I identified early in my essay. The filmmakers made The Instructions very closely resemble the printed instructions included with every real Lego set, which help consumers build a model into its intended form. In showing the movie characters' Instructions as a tool of the oppressive mega-corporation and a crutch for the mindless masses, Lego satirizes its own product. By the end of the movie, we can hardly avoid an inclination to shirk compliance with published standards and forge our own paths.

Chabon notes his children's instinctive mastery of this inclination: "Kids write their own manuals in a new language made up of the things we give them and the things that derive from the peculiar wiring of their heads. The power of Lego is revealed only after the models have been broken up or tossed, half finished, into the drawer."

So maybe that was a weak attempt at a review, after all. I hope I didn't spoil too much of the movie for those who have yet to watch it. I'm sure my family will see it many more times in the coming months and years. I'll be happy if it continues to stimulate and inspire me the way it did on my first viewing. I especially hope it causes Caleb to repeatedly laugh as freely as he did last night.


  1. My wife and I saw it this weekend and loved it.
    A big part of the fun was the "not taking itself too seriously", best shown by a wizards ghost hovering around, bouncing at the end of a very obvious piece of string.
    I also loved Lego as a boy, and was ecstatic that 80s Spaceman got the spotlight for a while.

    My wife and I only had one problem with the movie - batman and the girl. Batman hadn't done anything to justify what happened there at the end. Other than that, we found it to be a lot smarter and fun than we had thought it should be.

    And yeah, it makes me want to go out and get a box of generic blocks.

    1. Yes, that was a great scene when Vetruvius was hanging from the string.

      I liked how Lucy always introduces Batman as, "My boyfriend, Batman," and then adds, "We're like, really super serious."

      Caleb liked how he always says, "I'm Batman!" He repeats the phrase to me several times a day. We both laugh, and then one of us says, "That NEVER gets old."

      We both liked when he threw the little bat discs and hit the button on the first try.

      One of my favorite lines was when Lucy says Batman is dark and brooding, and Emmet replies, "Oh, dark AND brooding, huh?"

      It's a very fun movie.